The hagiography around David Foster Wallace—one I’ve devoutly consumed and even added to—has grown to somewhat absurd proportions in the four years since his death. It is thus possible to view D.T. Max’s new biography, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace, as yet another contribution to the cult of DFW; this, however, would miss the substance of Max’s book. Every Love Story… actually goes to great lengths to debunk many of the myths that have grown around Wallace since his death. And although Max is clearly sympathetic towards Wallace, the book doesn’t shy away from being honest about him.
One of the ways Max establishes credibility in this regard is by making clear how unreliable a source Wallace himself is. Indeed, Wallace told a remarkable number of lies about himself: lies about whether or not he had read Thomas Pynchon, lies about who he’d slept with, lies to editors about where he’d been published, lies to friends about graduate school applications, lies to women and family members and interviewers, often about things that hardly seem worth lying over. On some level, this is consistent with the popular image of Wallace as someone intensely afraid of revealing himself to people. But it is frankly troubling to read about how dodgy, immature, and narcissistic he could be at times, and Max doesn’t shy away from these unflattering details.
Of course, the biggest myth exposed in Max’s book is an understandable one: Due to Alcoholics Anonymous’ emphasis on secrecy, Wallace publicly denied ever participating in the Program—when Infinite Jest came out, he insisted the research had been done by sitting in on meetings—though in fact he was in recovery, and actively attended AA meetings, for most of his life. This is not a shocking revelation. Much about his breakdown in 1989, when he withdrew from Harvard’s graduate philosophy program, was already public, and his writing teems with details about addiction that are too intimate to not be somewhat personal. Still, Max illustrates just how important AA was to Wallace’s life, in part by demonstrating how this lie led to other, smaller lies: Friends of his who appear in his nonfiction had to be disguised so as not to betray their anonymity,* and autobiographical fiction could never be revealed for just how autobiographical it was.
*In “The View from Mrs. Thompson’s,” Wallace’s account of September 11th, for example, his Midwestern “neighbors” are really the quasi-family he had come to know through recovery.
Max’s analysis of Wallace’s fiction is one of the strongest elements of his book. He is impressively thorough in tracing the autobiographical sources for his work, particularly Infinite Jest—Max identifies Granada House, where Wallace stayed after his breakdown in ’89, as the inspiration for Ennet House, down to particular architectural similarities.* More importantly, though, Max expertly juxtaposes Wallace’s fiction with his state of mind at the time of writing.
*Max’s work in this regard is arguably TOO thorough. At times, Max almost seems to lose himself in identifying sources for things as simple as a character’s last name.
The biography includes a startling amount of Wallace’s own letters, which, coupled with the personal stories of his closest friends, provide an intimate portrait of the author at various stages in his life. Max is careful never to let Wallace’s claims go unchallenged, but he generally allows Wallace’s voice to speak for itself. It is through his own words, for example, that we come to learn just how much of his work Wallace was ultimately disappointed by. His repudiation of his debut novel, The Broom of the System, and his enthusiasm for an ambitious-but-fatally-flawed story like “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way” make far more sense given Max’s depiction of just how Wallace understood his own evolution as a writer.
The sections on the composition of Infinite Jest are probably the book’s best. Max not only documents the various sources for characters and plot points and breaks down the timeline for its production, but he places the mammoth novel in the context of Wallace’s artistic and personal development. It is surprising, for example, to hear just how much Wallace’s career had stalled between Girl with Curious Hair and Infinite Jest—Wallace’s letters reveal doubts about whether he’d ever be published again. And, of course, Max details just how much of Wallace’s personal recovery went into the novel.
Probably the most surprising detail about the book, though, is the extent to which Avril Incandenza was based on Wallace’s mother, Sally. Although Wallace and his mother were close while he was growing up, Wallace grew to resent her and even blame her for his addictions as an adult. They didn’t speak for years,* and Wallace’s portrayal of Avril as cold and “engaging in sexual enmeshments with just about everything with a Y-chromosome” deeply hurt Sally. Wallace claimed it was just “lit flourishes,” but the book’s Oedipal undercurrents clearly stemmed from his own life. Wallace himself was concerned about the how his mother would react to the book before sending her a copy to proofread.
*Although even during years when they didn’t speak, he would still call her with questions regarding grammar.
Unfortunately, though, we don’t hear much from Sally herself, which fits a problematic theme of the biography. While Max gives a deep and complex portrait of Wallace, down to quotidian details like how he paid for health insurance and how much wiper fluid he used on a road trip, the other figures in the book come off as surprisingly thin by comparison. Although Max had access to Wallace’s mother, one doesn’t get much of a sense of her as a person. Similarly, his father essentially disappears from this account of Wallace’s life after the initial chapters on his childhood.
There are similar absences in the depiction of Wallace’s romantic life. Although Max names most of Wallace’s girlfriends—an impressive feat in itself, since Wallace rarely stayed single for long, in part due to his own neediness—and uses them as valuable sources, most of them end up coming off as indistinguishable. Max does offer a memorable account of Wallace’s relationship with Mary Karr, who served as the inspiration for IJ’s Joelle van Dyne: Their relationship was a tumultuous and even scary one, with Wallace at one point buying a gun with the intention of killing her then-husband. His other girlfriends, though, don’t get the same in-depth treatment.
This is even true of the depiction of Karen Green, Wallace’s wife and anchor during the last years of his life. Although obviously a crucially important person in Wallace’s life, the book doesn’t provide a very full sense of her as a person.* In general, the last decade or so of Wallace’s life is not given the same treatment as his earlier years. His evolution from Infinite Jest to Oblivion and The Pale King is not given nearly as comprehensive an analysis as his evolution from The Broom… to IJ is. Even the account of Wallace’s last days was mostly repetitive of Max’s excellent 2009 New Yorker story.
*It’s possible, of course, that Green was reluctant to talk in detail to a biographer about her recently-deceased husband.
Of course, it speaks well to Max’s book that my biggest complaints about it were that it wasn’t longer* and that the author himself had reported much of it before. In fact, the book fills in the gaps between the famous phases of Wallace’s life—Young Literary Punk, Massively Famous Novelist, Tragic Suicide—and, in doing so, replaces these stenciled sketches of the author with a vivid portrait.
*Though, to be fair, the last biography I read before this one was Robert Caro’s The Power Broker, so any book was likely to feel slight by comparison.
Every Love Story… is an amazing achievement, particularly coming out so soon after Wallace’s death. Max not only manages to provide new details about someone whose life story has become its own cottage industry, but he actually manages to wade through myth and get to the truth. Wallace as described by Max seems less perfect, and therefore more human. Given Wallace’s own obsession with being understood in his writing, this is a grand accomplishment.